I have a question that isn't immediately relevant to me, and I'm not sure will be important in the future as I am quite happy with my situation. It is however something I have thought about at length and I've yet to come up with a set of general guidelines. I am a graduate student in the United States studying Mathematics, and am currently working with an advisor who has graduated ~10 students in his career. He has in the past mentioned a couple of the students, both in the context of research and current careers.

Is it appropriate to ask my advisor's former students questions regarding my relationship with said advisor? If this is a normal practice (as the question below would suggest), what is the etiquette to use in this situation? In particular, I am asking in the case where the previous students have all moved on and already graduated so email seems to be the best method of reaching out. Also, given that these conversations could contain sensitive information (i.e. questions regarding funding options given to the student, or grievances with said advisor) what would be the "kind" way to prevent the "sensitive" parts of the conversation from being relayed back to the advisor? Finally, would it be wise to reach out to some of these former student's at some point in my studies just for introduction and networking purposes? It is unlikely that our research interests would line up exactly, but it is an opportunity to contact people who have been through the same experience.

A specific case that is could become relevant in the future:

One of my advisor's recent students went into industry, and if this was something I considered in the future, would it be intrusive to email them and ask about their transition from graduate school to industry? In particular, would asking questions specific to my advisor's thoughts on this transition be appropriate? Also, related to the sensitive part, if for whatever reason I didn't want the advisor to know this was something I was considering would it be okay to ask the former student to keep this between us?

Note, I thought there would be many threads with a similar question, but the closest thing searches brought up was this link.

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    No time now for a proper answer, but in my corner of the world, yes, what you want to do would be considered inappropriate: if I were to receive such an email, I would ignore it. Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 23:30
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    Reaching out to previous graduate students to get advice on how they transitioned to their positions would generally be OK - often your advisor will introduce you to them at conferences if they are still in that area. However, this question has a very different vibe to it, kind of a search for gossip about one's (difficult?) advisor. So, I'm trying to understand exactly what you want to learn from previous students.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 23:54
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    At some point in your career, your advisor should be asking very open ended questions - that is when you have become independent. And there are good points to 'too great a workload' - you get to learn to prioritize and identify what has to get done, needs to get done, and what can be ignored.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 2:12
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    Comparing notes or asking for advice are reasonable things to do in the right circumstance. I think you should be more up front with us about what you really want to know. Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 2:24
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    what would be the "kind" way to prevent the "sensitive" parts of the conversation from being relayed back to the advisor? — The only part of this that seems even a little bit skeezy to me is the part where you are trying to keep the conversations secret from your advisor. If you think your advisor would be anything but happy for you to talk to their former students about anything, you really need a new advisor.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 7:04

4 Answers 4


I can only ask myself how I (a PhD scientist in industry in the US) would react upon receiving such a mail from one of my former advisor's current students.

  • If the mail asked for general career or technical advice, I would be happy to respond. In this case, there is really no need to ask the scientist to avoid mentioning the contact to your advisor -- (a) I probably wouldn't anyway, and (b) if your advisor would be upset by this, then you have bigger problems.
  • If the mail was asking for advice in dealing with the advisor, I would really look at how it was written. Tact and concision here goes a long way. For example, "Bob has been shouting at me 3-4 times a week and I am not sure how to proceed" is something I would want to advise you about; many details about the complicated lab politics are something I would prefer to avoid wading into. In this case, adding a brief note requesting that I don't broach the issue with your advisor directly will not do any harm (though, there is always a 1% chance that the mail somehow ends up in front of your advisor -- which is all the more reason to be tactful).
  • If the mail were asking for a brief phone call, I am less likely to respond (I hate phone calls and love e-mail; YMMV). But, if you simply must share things that absolutely cannot end up in front of the advisor, a phone call is your best bet (even if the advisor finds about the phone call, at least he won't have the transcript; this gives you a lot more flexibility).

If the former students are still in academia, then you will in all likelihood at some point attend the same conferences. It would be a perfectly normal thing to talk about your advisor: that is one of the things you two have in common. Start general, and get a feeling for how open that former student is about discussing such topics.

As to transitioning into industry, that seems to me a perfectly acceptable topic to sent an email about.


In general, contacting former students of your advisor is a good thing. I am very close to many of the former students of my advisor. We have a lot of common bonds because we study the same area, went to the same school,and had the same advisor. Your advisor may end up being one of the most influential people in your life.

However, this should always be treated as a professional relationship (at least initially). If you are looking for gossip or somebody to complain to, it will not be received well. Remember that these former students are probably still close to your advisor (and loyal to your advisor), so anything you say may get back to them.

Edits: fix typos


I think this is very culture-specific, both in a broad sense (country/region) and a much finer sense (research group culture).

Personally I was very close with my advisor, but they are a taher eccentric individual, so learning how to effectively communicate with them is quite the skill to learn.

Only recently did I meet an early student of my advisor and we had a discussion about the work culture etc. This past student is now a full professor themselves, and I personally appricated their insight on their relationship.

I have answered emails and calls to prospective students of my advisor. I personally believe I have a duty to discuss a prospective PhD student's inquiries and potential concerns since a PhD is such long time to dedicate to working on a single project.

Although, even though I personally find such interactions fine, tone is extremely important. If someone were to contact me and just rudely rant about my advisor to me, I would make no promises to keep this confidential. So, like in all things, being polite is a good idea.

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